For Netanyahu, Trump’s missile strike is a chance to forge a less dangerous Syria

In order to beat back Iran and Hizbollah, the future of Syria is best underwritten by both Russia and the US

April 09, 2017 15:36

It is too early to say whether last Friday morning’s American missile strike on the Syrian air base that launched the chemical attack on Idlib was just a one-off or heralds America’s return as an active player in the region.

Either way, it is coming at a pivotal point for Israel as well. The stakes in Syria have never been higher, but with a more active American player on the field, Israel also has new options.

Israel’s policy towards Syria over the last six years has remained remarkably consistent.

Under Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has sought not to get sucked into the bloody war across its border while safeguarding its strategic interests by carrying out military strikes when necessary.

For the past year and a half, this has meant intensive diplomacy with Russia, which has deployed its forces to Syria and became the main international player controlling the country’s fate.

Despite President Vladimir Putin officially taking the Assad regime under his wing and directing his forces there to cooperate with Iran and Hizbollah, he turned a blind eye towards Israel’s periodic strikes on Hizbollah weapons convoys and Syria army units which — usually inadvertently — fired across Israel’s borders.

Until very recently, it seemed that Mr Putin was satisfied with accommodating Israel’s needs as long as it was clear that his overall aim of ensuring Mr Assad’s survival was not jeopardised. The Israeli and Russian militaries established a hotline between the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv and the Russians’ main Syrian air base at Khmeimim.

The two air forces were careful not to get in each other’s way. But the situation, both on the ground and in the diplomatic channels, was changing even before the regime bombed the town of Khan Shaikhoun last Tuesday with Sarin nerve agents, killing at least 80 people.

For the last few months, the consensus has been that the war is finally winding down, that the regime will remain, ruling over at least part of the country, and that this is the period in which permanent arrangements will be created. In his recent visits to both Washington and Moscow, Mr Netanyahu urged Presidents Trump and Putin not to allow Iran and Hizbollah to create lasting strongholds within Syria, especially not on the Golan Heights and the main transport routes leading from Iran via Iraq to Lebanon. One of his suggestions has been to create “buffer zones” on the Syrian side along the Israeli and Jordanian borders. It is unclear to what degree Mr Putin has been forthcoming on this issue and the events of recent days have been a useful opportunity for Israel to highlight to the Trump administration the dangers of a Syria in which Russia is the sole power-broker.

Whether or not Mr Assad remains as a puppet ruler in Damascus, Israel is anxious for a post-war balance in Syria which minimises the roles of Iran and Hizbollah. The best way to achieve such an outcome is to have both Russia and the US underwriting it.

For now, Russia is doubling down on its support for Mr Assad, publicly suspending its “deconfliction” coordination with the US military (but interestingly, not with Israel). However, if the Americans are now planning to become more involved, Mr Putin will have to take them into consideration, rather than lose the major investment he has made in Syria.

The swift and accurate attack on Friday morning emphasised also America’s military superiority, when its president chooses to use it.

Israel was quick to publicly release last week its own intelligence assessments that clearly linked the regime to the chemical attack. More details were unquestionably shared with their American counterparts and could have played a role both in Mr Trump’s decision to retaliate and the accuracy of the missile strike, which took out some of the Sukhoi-22 fighter-bombers believed to have bombed Khan Shaikhoun.

Both on Tuesday and Friday mornings, Mr Netanyahu was the first world leader to respond to the strikes in Syria. In the second case, his office had a statement prepared by 6am, less than 90 minutes after the Tomahawk missiles exploded in Syria. It said “Israel fully supports President Trump’s decision and hopes that this message of resolve in the face of the Assad regime’s horrific actions will resonate not only in Damascus but in Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere.” For “elsewhere”, read Moscow.

April 09, 2017 15:36

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